Margaret Thatcher – Everything She Wants by Charles Moore


Margaret Thatcher: The Official Biography – Everything She Wants

Charles Moore, London: Allen Lane, 2015, 821pp, £30

At the end of the first volume of Charles Moore’s lapidary trilogy, we left Mrs. Thatcher standing in St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1982, surrounded by the shades of past national leaders, bathing in public approval and growing global respect as victor of the Falklands and standard-bearer for a new and dynamic kind of conservative politics. This keenly-anticipated second instalment carries on her career from that high point until her last electoral victory in 1987. It was during this lustrum that her style started to become apparent, and her legacy to crystallize, as she dealt, often successfully, simultaneously with systemic problems lesser leaders would never have attempted.

From Hong Kong to Washington, Brussels to Jerusalem, privatisation to perestroika, seething Northern miners to South African sanctions, whether addressing both houses of the U.S. Congress or crawling shoeless away from her bombed Brighton bedroom, Mrs. Thatcher not only clung onto power but became ever more armour-plated. By the time she won her historic third term, she had become, for an adoring social segment, the personification of Britannic pluck, so apparently immoveable that her party was often seen (and saw itself) as “the natural party of government”. For a smaller but more voluble social segment, she was the loathsome “Leaderene”, personification of all that was authoritarian, heartless and philistine. Moore shows expertly with what combination of skill, verve, and good and bad luck this came to pass – also what opportunities were overlooked, which issues mishandled, and what stresses were building below the permanent regime surface.

As if the Falklands were not enough to deal with in the course of a year, 1982 also saw plans to privatise British Telecom and revolutionise welfare and education, negotiations with Beijing about the handover of Hong Kong, visits to newly-elected Helmut Kohl, the death of Brezhnev, and the election of Garret Fitzgerald as Irish Taoiseach. Mrs. Thatcher brought energy and originality to bear on all these disparate matters, frequently against the will of officials and even her own ministers, zeroing in remorselessly on details, often at the expense of the bigger picture, impervious to boredom, sometimes wearing others down, sometimes being worn down herself by institutional inanition.

Her record is more mixed than either her emphatic personality or later mythologising would suggest. She is justly celebrated for her rôle in American-Soviet relations, drawing Gorbachev into play, steering delicately between reassuring a jittery USSR and lecturing its new leader, papering diplomatically over UK-US disagreements over Grenada and S.D.I., and restraining Reagan’s occasional naivety (“It is inconceivable that the Soviets would turn over their last nuclear weapon. They would cheat. I would cheat”). It was characteristic that when she was offered a rare, behind-the-scenes tour of the Kremlin she replied, “Do you think I’ve come here as a tourist?”

Other foreign policies were holding actions, such as in the Middle East, where she qualified strong support for Israel with distaste for the Likudniks, and arranging vast arms deals with the Saudis. Hong Kong was always going to be a defeat, but she played an impossible hand well. One of the obscurer stories herein is her policy on South Africa, which earned her vast opprobrium, and embarrassed her ministers. She disliked apartheid as incompatible with liberty, and never felt comfortable with Afrikanerdom. She was also the first British prime minister to request the release of Mandela. But she also had “personal sympathies” with the white population, which included some of Denis’s relations. She felt sanctions would harm blacks more than whites, and besides believed that Britain had an absolute right to its own trade and foreign policy – views widespread among the British public. She hated the moral grandstanding of countries like France and Canada, which called for sanctions in public but traded in secret – and the Commonwealth, some of whose states were more dictatorial than the R.S.A. South Africa was furthermore a strategically important anti-communist power. Yet she yielded, probably because of pressure from the Queen – “probably”, because the weekly discussions between sovereign and prime minister are private, and Mrs. Thatcher would never breach punctilio.

Argument still sputters about her Irish legacy. Instinctively Unionist, she nevertheless brokered the Anglo-Irish Agreement in conjunction with Garret Fitzgerald, whom she found infinitely more congenial than Charles Haughey, if garrulous (once, she fell asleep during one of his expositions – “Keep talking”, her Private Secretary Charles Powell encouraged the Taoiseach, “I’ll write it all down”). The reasons were manifold. As so often on other matters, she was alone in her Unionism, the chief British negotiators having Irish sympathies to the extent that, as Moore notes, “Ultimately, it was not a negotiation…‘How do you persuade the Prime Minister?’ was the question”. The Unionist political leaders were unhelpful. She saw the Ulster Unionist Party’s James Molyneux as “not a strong person”, while Ian Paisley was “not easy” (a masterly understatement). Enoch Powell, an Ulster Unionist MP as well as small-c conservative mage, might have toughened her resolve had he been more astute, but alienated her forever by accusing her of “treachery”. It was unsurprising that Unionists were effectively excluded from the talks, which disquieted even Green-leaning Foreign Office negotiators. The only aspect of her Irish involvement that all (perhaps even the I.R.A.) admired was her selfless serenity in the aftermath of the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, when she left her damaged room to check on the secretaries across the corridor, coolly went back in to pick up her clothes, and was pleased to be handed the text of next day’s speech as she was being bundled away by police. “The conference will go on as usual”, she told the BBC in the small hours, and English hearts swelled with proprietorial pride. Even this explosive irruption did not alter the pro-Dublin tenor of the talks. Even now, Moore sounds surprised that there was “no attempt to take political advantage”.

But it is on Europe that her ghost is most often invoked, seen then and  now as arch-sceptic, securer of rebates, slasher of red tape, handbagger of Eurocrats, Sayer of Noes, and voice of England. When she was shown a picture of Mitterand and Kohl holding reconciliatory hands at a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of Verdun, and was asked whether it wasn’t moving, she replied “No, it was not – two grown men holding hands!” But fond folk-memories of brusquerie and intransigence occlude the untidy actuality. Although she secured a swingeing 66% rebate in the British contribution to the EU at the stormy 1984 Fontainebleau summit, the concession must be viewed in the full light of UK-EU relations.

The Foreign Office customarily viewed negotiations with the rest of the EU in specific, detailed terms, focusing on economic gains and ignoring anything that seemed ‘merely’ theoretical. Mrs. Thatcher likewise had a “congenital anxiety to understand the detail of everything”, and so, like career diplomats, she failed to see the forest for the strangling undergrowth. But EU negotiators took the opposite approach, setting great moral and political store by even the airiest protocols, declarations, directives and resolutions, using each as a kind of building block in an edifice. In 1983, Mrs. Thatcher had signed the Solemn Declaration on European Union, because (as she would rationalise from retirement), “I could not quarrel with everything, and the document had no legal force”. The 1984 rebate came at the cost of acquiescence in higher European expenditure, no reform for the Common Agricultural Policy, and agreement to qualified majority voting. Even her attempts to make the EU more business-friendly had the effect of locking the UK further in, for example by harmonising indirect taxes. In 1986, she signed the Single European Act, something she later greatly regretted. As so often, the English underestimated the incantatory power of theories – and the Conservatives displayed a lack of imagination (the principal small-c conservative vice in every country). As on Ireland, Mrs. Thatcher was almost alone in her distrust of the project, with many of her most senior allies affianced to the European idea. The process of joining the ERM continued on her watch, against her instincts but pushed assiduously by most in the Cabinet. (The UK would join in 1990, and come crashing out disastrously on 1992’s “Black Wednesday”.) Her outspoken anti-Europeanism had the ironic effect of deepening integration, because as Moore observes,

…being a sceptic herself, she could marginalise the sceptics: if she said it was all right, who would listen to their objections?

She remains the only Conservative Prime Minister who has become an ism, and her rule will always be remembered for deregulation, the selling off of state assets from telephones and airlines to council housing, and the radical Stock Exchange reforms of 1986. Behind the latter lay the ghosts of old resentments as well as reason. Just before the 1979 election, Mrs. Thatcher had been given a hard time by bankers at a luncheon. When Cecil Parkinson told her “Don’t worry; they’ll vote for you, and they’ll forget it”, she replied “They may, but I won’t.” The long-term economic effects fall outside the purview of this volume, but the author allows that public share-ownership has never really taken off, that banking liberalisation helped cause the credit crunch by creating banks that combined risky investment operations with high street services, and hints en passant at the direful consequences of the credit revolution. The prudent housewife ironically facilitated the personal indebtedness of millions. Yet Moore is surely right that economic liberalisation was inevitable anyway because of technology, and that “Getting rick, quick or otherwise, is broadly speaking better for a country than getting poor slowly”.

She will also always be remembered/reprehended for the miners’ strike of 1984, during which the ultra-Left Arthur Scargill dragooned National Union of Mineworkers members to strike against the closure of obviously uneconomic pits. But Scargill made the mistake of not holding a national ballot of miners when he could have won it. The result was that miners were divided, with those of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Kent mostly working and those from Yorkshire mostly striking. There were violent clashes between strikers and police, and nasty assaults on “scabs”, culminating in the death of a taxi-driver killed when concrete was dropped from a motorway bridge onto his car, in which he was carrying a working miner. Mrs. Thatcher was horrified by all this – “Scabs?!?” she expostulated. “They are lions!” Scargill also refused to make concessions when these might have saved some pits or at least secured more mitigation, and he accepted money from both the Soviet Union and, worst of all, Libya, whilst Libya was funding the I.R.A. He was ergo part of what Mrs. Thatcher dubbed “the enemy within” (a phrase derived from Methodist hymns). His obduracy fed Mrs. Thatcher’s, and she was always going to win (she was always fortunate in her enemies). It was a battle that had to be won, but there was huge collateral damage in mining communities, the effects of which can still be felt in the North. As Moore says ruefully, “In the struggle to win the strike, no clarity had ever been reached about what ought to happen after”. The “lions” really were betrayed, and the British coal industry is almost defunct, just as Scargill predicted.

A pet project, the poll tax, would lead directly to her 1990 defenestration. The old property rates system was indefensible, to the extent that Labour gave the proposed tax an almost free ride through parliament. The idea was furthermore being pushed by the No. 10 Policy Unit, which saw it as part of an overall drive to make local government slimmer and more accountable. But Mrs. Thatcher, normally so detail-focused, had not considered how big a job it would be to compile new taxpayer registers – nor wondered how those who had never been taxed (including students, pensioners and the disabled) would feel – or how the tax would be collected. Almost everyone else in the Cabinet was against it, including Chancellor Nigel Lawson, but for once she refused to compromise. Her political secretary Stephen Sherbourne noted sadly,

It was the beginning of her losing touch with people, with a real electoral base.

Domestic policies were always impinged upon by intrigue and inter-departmental turf wars. The Westland affair started off as a minor disagreement about whether an American or a European consortium should take over a British helicopter manufacturer, but escalated into a crisis over which two ministers resigned, and the government could have fallen. A barbed footnote summarises perfectly the character of Michael Heseltine, a showman who, Moore relates, wore no fewer than six different ties on the day he resigned. The restrained facades of the London S.W.1 postal district masked mares’ nests, with parts of the Party working against each other and their ostensible leader, while other parts would “respond excessively to whatever they thought might be her will”. Looking back, Norman Tebbit remembered that he “began to understand Tudor history better”. Small wonder she was often indecisive – until she had committed herself to some course of action.

She was part of the problem, because she was no Machiavellian and so was often unaware of what subtexts were seething around her. She rarely flattered or gave public credit to ministerial colleagues, and could be inadvertently rude. At one Chequers meeting, she cut off Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe with “Don’t worry, Geoffrey. We know exactly what you’re going to say!” Unsurprising that even the urbane Howe could at times explode like “a Welsh hwyl”. She was not clubbable; Robin Butler, who was her principal private secretary for three years, likened talking to her socially to “feeding a fierce animal”.

She was exceptionally lucky in some of her officials, like Robin Butler, Charles Powell and press secretary Bernard Ingham, all of whom combined loyalty and respect for her intelligence with a kind of chivalry. There is a touching anecdote of her private detective seeing her just before an operation on her hand –

how lonely she looked in the hospital, clutching a teddy bear that the Garden Room girls had given her.

Nevertheless, she often felt the need to resort to outsiders for advice or encouragement, raffish characters like David Hart, the Old Etonian Jewish banker and novelist who claimed to know “the street” and had an empathy with coalminers (a “surprising impression”, Moore opines wickedly) – and oenophile quidnunc Woodrow Wyatt, who acted as a conduit to Rupert Murdoch and the Royal Family. “She liked dangerous people”, reflected former political secretary Tim Flesher.

And these were her allies. The London N.1 postal district sheltered sworn enemies, with “Islington” Sun shorthand for the “loony Left”. Like David Hart, but maliciously, a preponderance of the capital’s journalists, playwrights, novelists, filmmakers and musicians imagined they had a special understanding of life in Brixton, or Whitechapel, or County Durham mining communities. Mrs. Thatcher was not just wrong on facts, they felt, but motivated by varying combinations of classism, cupidity, homophobia, ignorance, philistinism, racism and selfishness (it was harder to accuse her of sexism, although that was essayed). They felt unbounded contempt for her romantic view of English history – what Moore calls her “grand simplicities” – her unpretentious religiosity, and even her hairstyle and clothes. Anthony Burgess sniffed, “She reads best-sellers”.

On her death, playwright Howard Brenton hyperventilated,

It was as if some kind of evil was abroad in our society, a palpable degradation of the spirit,

while Ian McEwan wrote

It was never enough to dislike her. We liked disliking her.

Other cultivated haters included Julian Barnes, Jonathan Miller, David Hare, Dennis Potter, Alan Bennett and Hanif Kureishi, and they were lavished screen and airwave hours by the BBC, which even gave Doctor Who a Thatcher-like enemy. She was portrayed by cartoonists as cannibal, nuclear cloud, pterodactyl and shark, and by Spitting Image as aquiline dominatrix. She was refused an honorary degree by Oxford (she already had a real one), essentially because of what one anti-Thatcher academic called a strong “aesthetic” objection. The snub hurt her, but backfired, as American donations to Oxford dried up in consequence.

She was scorned as anti-intellectual, but while it is true that she insisted on pronouncing the T in “Godot”, and thought Alan Hollinghurst’s then-lauded novel The Line of Beauty was called The Line of Duty, part of the problem seems to have been that she listened to what Leftists saw as the “wrong” intellectuals – Keith Joseph, Alfred Sherman and Hugh Thomas instead of them. One rare academic fan, John Vincent, felt she had become –

the point at which all snobberies meet – intellectual snobbery, social snobbery, the snobbery of [London club] Brooks’s, the snobbery about scientists among those educated in the arts, the snobbery of the metropolis about the provincial, the snobbery of the South about the North, and the snobbery of men about career women.

As the ’87 election approached, despite a strong economy, the cumulative abuse grew ever louder and more personal, and the strain became obvious. Moore gives a vivid account of the fraught day one week before polling that would afterwards be called “Wobbly Thursday”, when Smith Square witnessed an extraordinary shouting match, the Prime Minister “almost hysterical”, screaming and her eyes flashing – “hatred shot out of them, like a dog about to bite you”, said one shocked observer. As this magisterial account reaches its too-early end, the once indefatigable ironclad is seizing up and starting to run to rust, with back-office and backbench restiveness approaching critical levels, the Cabinet losing the habit of collective responsibility, and public opinion tiring at last of what even Tory loyalists called“TBW” (“That Bloody Woman”). She had said during the campaign that she planned to “go on and on”, but for a growing number she had obviously gone on long enough already. As she stood at the Downing Street window beside Denis and Norman Tebbit on election night, she must have been thinking about her own as well as Britain’s future.

This review first appeared in Chronicles in July 2016, and is reproduced with permission

A watch in the Middle Marches



“O, the wild hills of Wales, the land of old renown, and of wonder”

George Borrow, Wild Wales

I step silent across the flagged floor below weathered slates and beams, sleep-held family breathing behind, the only other sounds the scratching of terriers’ claws as they push past into rain-remembering grass – and somewhere among the waiting trees a blackbird hailing a new day of toil and danger. Then I am tramping through silver, shocking grass, soaking instantly even through army boots, my prints a dark line leading to the dingle that dashes a stream down the valley’s slope in an understorey of moss-stockinged trunks, fragrant ferns and Ordovician erratics.

Aided by an ashplant, I compel my not-yet limbered legs upwards in the pre-dawn, cold hamstrings stretching and breath catching, as I see the way the sun is fingering through the canopy and picking out sub-shades in ‘grey’ lichen, dew-spangles on sphagnum, ichor-hued rowan berries, and a gnat-squadron sparked into electric activity by warmth after the dampness of the darkness. A gate clicks open and closes, then another – old and oxidised, but nowhere near as old as the stone wall that writhes like one of the apocryphal black adders of this area around the head of the tiny valley, differentiating this particular part of Radnorshire from another particular part.

The trees fail after tortured hawthorns, and I find myself on a moor from a dream. My shadow streams uphill, pointing straight at the wind and rain-worn prominence that is one of the highest and steepest of these Carneddau Hills. It looks like a knuckle on a fist, and carries old colours – Cambrian greys, stretched browns, greens of growing thinness. But as I ascend on my second wind, the sun dismisses the last lingering wyverns of the night and lends texture to everything. I notice new-lit lanterns of gorse-blossom, and see that the sheep-gnawed fairway is not just grass, but a mat of mosses, fungi, heathers and tiny Alpines whose names I long to know, among them maybe the Radnor Lily, found (or noticed) nowhere else on earth – spikes, seedheads and florets in star-white, yolk-yellow, and peacock-purple weaving in and out of each other in defiance of exposure, the acid earth, and the acute angles up which I am toiling, masochistically crosswise to the sheep-tracks. Slopes slide away steeply and satisfactorily behind as I make the final ascent, and can stand straight again.

Cwmberwyn Camp is marked Fort on the Ordnance Survey map, the Gothic lettering signifying this is an historic site – although this is perhaps unnecessary to note in a country as careworn as Wales. In any case, there is little specific history that can be attached to this spot, because no-one now can ever know which particular Iron Age patriarch’s people heaped up stones to give some semblance of shelter and security, let alone who or what precisely they were afraid of, out there in the humped and howling wilderness beyond their rampart and fires.

That wilderness seems less menacing on an early morning in August, when all of south-central Wales looks like it has been made for me, a stupendous papier-mâché diorama marching to all horizons, with painterly effects in thousands of shades – peaks above cloud-collars, streamlets like snail-trails, trailing rain-curtains, stray sunbeams searchlighting solitary farms and scattered Hill Radnor sheep. Visible from here on a day like today are the Brecon Beacons, the Black Mountains, the Cambrian Mountains, Plynlimon where the Wye and Severn rise, Rhos Fawr on the high and treeless plateau of Radnor Forest, and beyond that a hint of England. I envy the wild things that know this vantage-point so much better than I ever shall – the mistle thrush, the ring ouzel, the red kites, the buzzards, and the ravens that kronk and coast overhead in vast transparency, or the pair of mountain hares that lollop past, luckily unseen by the dogs, who are watching the feral ponies as they graze up to their fetlocks in gorse.

Radnorshire is one of the thirteen pre-1974 counties of Wales (some exclude Monmouthshire), and the second-smallest in Britain (after Rutland). It abuts Herefordshire and Shropshire in England, and the Welsh counties of Montgomeryshire, Brecknockshire and Cardiganshire. Its location implies geopolitical contention, and this indeed it has experienced – although its remoteness meant that it did not experience as much hardship as more strategic parts of the Marches. Yet occasionally events here have had implications as far away as London – or even Rome, for this was the centre of resistance to Roman occupation, where Caratacus (called Caradoc in Wales) presided over an alliance of Ordovici and Silures that defied the legions even after Caradoc had been captured and taken to Rome.

The Welsh, wrote Gerald of Wales affectionately in his 1191 Journey through Wales, are

…light and active, hardy rather than strong and entirely bred up to the use of arms; for not only the nobles but all the people are trained to war, and when the trumpet sounds the alarm the husbandman rushes as eagerly from his plough as the courtier from his court…they anxiously study the defence of their country and their liberty…for these willingly sacrifice their lives.

The Welsh were renowned for their archery long before the bow became important to the English. Longbow arrows were capable of piercing four inches into solid oak, or pinning riders to their steeds through their leg armour. Its disconcerting effects were described by Philip Warner in his 1997 book Famous Welsh Battles

[I]ts rapid rate of discharge, averaging twelve arrows a minute, could blanket a target on which they descended like a dark vengeful cloud. The recipients would suddenly notice that the sky had gone dark and there was a curious sound like the hissing of geese. In the next moment, all would be  groans, screams and confusion.

Such incoming would often be followed up by seething waves of “dagger-men”, hated and feared even by their allies for their rapacity and reckless cruelty. With such tactics, and in such guerilla-friendly terrain, it is scarcely surprising that Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country in the world. The area that would become Radnorshire was as restive as anywhere along this 160-mile frontline, as can be attested by Offa’s Dyke, built to guard against the depredations of generations of Kings of Powys, and the remains of several Norman castles. The Gwynedd prince Lywelyn ap Iorwerth (nicknamed “The Great”) certainly found it a receptive recruiting ground when in the second decade of the thirteenth century he sought to unite the Welsh and rid the Middle Marches of their cruel Anglo-Norman overlords, the Mortimers and de Braoses (the latter family better known in Scotland, as the Bruces). This revolt induced Henry III to decamp from London to Painscastle in Radnorshire, then a thriving town, from where he ruled England for seven hectic weeks in the summer of 1231.

The touching badly-painted mural of Llewelyn the Last in Builth Wells

The touching badly-painted mural of Llewelyn the Last in Builth Wells

His grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, has gone down in the plangent tale of Wales as “Llywelyn the Last” – that is, the last leader of a united Wales. All realistic hopes of independence expired with him when he was slain on 11 December 1282 in obscure, inglorious circumstances near Builth Wells just across the Wye – an event commemorated in a touchingly badly-painted mural in that town. The town may even now have a bad conscience in this matter, because its garrison supposedly refused him shelter the night before he was killed, local chiefs may have led him into a trap, and a local resident showed the English army a ford over the Irfon so they could attack the Welsh in the flank. Angry nationalists long traduced townspeople as the “Traitors of Buallt”. The contemporary bard Gruffudd ap yr Ynad Goch wrote in anger as well as anguish,

For the killing of our prop, our golden-handed king,

For Lywelyn’s death, I remember no-one.

Lywelyn’s head was dispatched to London, while the rest of his body was interred before the high altar at Radnorshire’s huge Cistercian Abbey of Cwmhir. Over the following three years, said a laconic observer,  “all Wales was cast to the ground”.

Yet Wales would rise again – with revolts by Rhys ap Maredudd in 1287, Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294 and Llywelyn Bren in 1316, and various miscarrying schemes for invasion and subversion dreamed up by the many exiled Welsh fighting on the continent, but still thinking of home. Radnorshire played little or no role in these events, but in June 1402 it was the setting for the greattest ever defeat of the English by the Welsh, when Owain Glyndŵr, the last native Welshman to bear the title Prince of Wales, met the English at the Battle of Pilleth (also called Bryn Glas), near Presteigne.

Accounts are garbled, but it seems the English leader, naturally a Mortimer, leading an array of Marcher gentlemen and levied tenants from his estates, ordered his forces uphill just above the church at Pilleth (the tower still stands, despite having been fired by Glyndŵr’s troops). Suddenly, Mortimer’s levied Welsh archers turned round, perhaps suddenly inflamed by seeing Glyndŵr’s legendary war standard, the Golden Dragon of Cadwaladr, and started to fire on their overlords. An estimated 1,000 English died, their pillaged and women-mutilated bodies being left contemptuously unburied for months. (The site would be left untilled until the 1870s.) Mortimer was captured, and threw in his lot with Glyndŵr to the extent of marrying his daughter and going along with Glyndŵr’s grandiose scheme to topple Henry IV and divide Britain into three – Wales to Glyndŵr, the south of England to the Mortimers, and the North to the Percys. He must have reprehended this decision seven years later, when he died of starvation at the siege of Harlech.

After Glyndŵr’s defeat and disappearance, Radnorshire settled down into pastorality, a place for graziers and especially drovers who passed through endlessly on their way to the markets of England, in a tremendous two-mile-an-hour noise and dust of iron-shod, lowing, black cattle and yapping Corgis, along ancient undulating routes marked out by prominent pines. However, it was also a place for outlawry, and bandits long plagued the hills around Knighton and Presteigne. It took Tudor rough justice to deal with this problem, with the Presteigne assizes (presided over by the bishop who married Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn) executing some five thousand malefactors in just eight years in the 1530s. It is hard to visualize such scenes in today’s handsome, hipsterish town, with its dignified church of St Andrews (which incidentally contains a rare and magnificent sixteenth century Flemish tapestry), and the little Lugg which trickles along the eastern edge of the conurbation, dividing Wales from England. Yet a curfew bell is still sounded each evening at eight o’clock, a sonic connection to ancient alarums.

The Tudors were of Welsh origin but this did not stop them treating their ancestral homeland with their usual unsentimentality. Abbey Cwmhir was dissolved, and emparked. The Welsh legal system was swept aside, and the language excluded from official business. In 1536 Radnorshire was fashioned out of two old cantrefi – Maelienydd and Elfael – and two smaller commotes – Gwrtheyrnion and Deuddwr. The redolent antiquity even then of these superseded land divisions may be surmised from the facts that cantrefi often followed the frontiers of Dark Ages sub-kingdoms and even dialects, while Gwrtheyrnion translates evocatively as “the land of Vortigern”.

With such reason to resent the Crown, it is arguably ironic that most of Wales favoured the Royalist cause during the Civil War, and Radnorshire was no exception, at least partly because Charles I had spent much of his boyhood on an estate between Evenjobb and Presteigne. There were only skirmishes in the county, but the embattled monarch passed twice through Radnorshire in the straitened period between Naseby in June 1645 and final defeat at Chester that September, on one especially deflated occasion reportedly complaining that Bush Farm near Old Radnor where the famished royal party once overnighted should be renamed Beggar’s Bush. The glory days of 1642, when Radnorshirers paid generous tribute to Prince Rupert at Radnor Castle, must have seemed impossibly distant –

Some brought him pieces of plate of great antiquity, as might appear from the fashion thereof. The common people brought in provisions for the maintenance of his court such as young kids, sheep, calves, fish and fowl of all sorts and some sent in fat oxen. Everyone was striving for the credit and glory of his country to exceed in several expressions of generous liberality.

Radnorshire was fated never to become fashionable – too infertile, too Welsh, too far from London – and there is an indicative 17th century doggerel –

Alas, alas, poor Radnorsheer,

Never a park and never a deer,

Never a man of five hundred a year,

Save Richard Fowler of Abbey Cwmhir.

But in the eighteenth century, a farmer near Llandrindod cashed in on the Georgian craze for ‘taking the waters’, and sought to attract health tourists with chalybeate cures. This was so successful that the following century the municipality changed its name to Llandrindod Wells. The town today accordingly resembles a transplanted segment of Surrey, with an attractive if faintly dispiriting blend of Victorian/Edwardian red-brick villas, hotels and golf courses. Its Home Counties appearance would probably have dismayed the landscape artist Thomas Jones, born at Cefnllys in 1742, and early inspired by that borough’s rough cow-spattered pastures slanting down to the frothing Ithon, and the Iron Age earthworks on the hill overlooking the ancient circular churchyard with its brooding yews, and the earthed-over town. However, Llandrindod also hosts the interesting Radnorshire Museum with a notable collection of trilobite fossils – which are oddly echoed in the displayed crest of the World War Two Royal Naval ship H.M.S. Scorpion, the building of which was partly funded by subscriptions from Radnorshirers.

As well as sufferers from gout and dyspepsia, the nineteenth century also ushered in walkers, cyclists, fishermen and artists who saw the district as a kind of Brythonic Bavaria. There was also a great engineering scheme of the kind at which the Victorians excelled in the Elan and Claerwen valleys, large tracts of which were submerged between 1893 and 1904 to guarantee a water supply to Birmingham.

Despite these rapid changes, there were still many distinctive aspects to Radnorshire rurality, many recorded by Francis Kilvert, an Anglican vicar who lived in the district between 1863 and 1879, whose diaries are minor classics. On the third of July 1872, for instance, he visited Painscastle, still pawkily conscious of having once been a considerable town, with its royal memories and its own Mayor. Kilvert found the present incumbent of that once important position with “the rest of the village statesmen lounged in the inn porch”. Kilvert found the Mayor marvellously lugubrious –

The Mayor took us to the quarry and discoursed without enthusiasm and even with despondency on the badness of the roads, the difficulty of hauling the stone, and the labour of ‘ridding’ the ground before the stone could be raised…After some talk at the quarry about ways and means, we parted, the Mayor returning to his mayoralty which had no emolument, no dignity and no powers, he ‘didna think’.

His Church was then in occasionally angry competition with Wales’s chapel-going sects, the latter a legacy of post-Civil War Puritanization. The struggle for souls was entered into enthusiastically by another author of minor classics – George Borrow, uncompromising Anglican, scattergun philologist and erstwhile gypsy. His delightful Wild Wales (1862) details dozens of small adventures in long-distance walking, doctrinal disputation, discussions of lake monsters and second-sight, extempore chanting of odes, eulogia of ales and umbrellas, denunciations of sherry and railways, and unbridled showing-off. It was Borrow who (on a later journey) recorded an exchange with a hotel maid in Presteigne who when asked whether he was in Wales or England, replied pragmatically, “Neither Wales nor England, sir, just Radnorshire”.

This has become a kind of local cliché, an idea aided by the hopscotching and hybridisation of English and Welsh people and place-names all along the boundary. But as in most borderlands one culture dominates, perhaps all the more self-consciously for feeling exposed – and in Radnorshire it is the Celtic rather than the Saxon. This impression is aided by the largeness and loneliness of the landscape, the majority of place-names especially as you move westwards, the ring-forts and standing stones, and (is this too fanciful?) even the smell of the drizzle that so often descends, which seems to carry the breath of bracken and the tang of sheep.

Radnorshire may be geographically marginal to Wales, but it is not imaginatively marginal. The locally-made Red Book of Hergest (written circa 1382) was one of the two sources for The Mabinogion, the national epic of battles, blood feuds, castles, dreams, enchantments, giant kings, magic cauldrons, princesses, prophecies and psychopomps instrumental in the revival of Cymric consciousness from the nineteenth century onwards. Radnorshire may be a pragmatic place, but even leaving aside memories of real men like Caradoc, the Llywelyns, or Glyndŵr it also echoes with archetypes. It still somehow seems to look west rather than east, towards the evening rather than the morning. It is impossible to explore these uplands and not fall into vague romantic reveries  – Arthur, Merlin, Gwyn ap Nudd and his underworld, the Black Dog of Hergest (which some say was the model for The Hound of the Baskervilles), or the dragon under Radnor Forest, legendarily pinned in place by a cordon of churches dedicated to St. Michael.

Looking over the boundless panorama from the knuckle of this hill, one thinks too of the early Christians, founders of cells and mission churches out in that desolate remoteness, some of whom actually used the elephantine eighth century font at Old Radnor, the oldest in Britain. Imagine oneself back in that dawn rather than this, and one can easily understand both euhemerism and angelology. It seems cheap to chortle at that world, their innocence – more respectful and appropriate to drift into dream, like the Jacobean virginalist John Bull, almost certainly born in Old Radnor and long a resident of this area, assembling precise pavans and glorious anthems against that wild geography. Did this vigorous man who, according to a priggish Archbishop of Canterbury, “hath more music than honesty” ever think about Radnor from his Low Countries exile? The Church he and so many others served (and all the chapels) are now more often than not empty, and the work of pinning down monsters is carried on by a new kind of priest, whose tedious tirades are diffused by the media mast that surmounts the Black Mixen, transmitting trivia high above the heather, explaining everything away, trying to make everywhere the same, binding Wales to anti-Wales more effectually than the most ambitious Earl of March could have imagined. But despite all they have done and are trying to do, this is still a debatable as well as delectable country, a frontier not just between two noble and now equally compromised nationalities, but also between legend and reality, past and future, sleep and alertness.

Now, back to the hill, and with the sun remorselessly rising, my early escapade is over. There is just time to take one last look over the stirring shire, before starting the long scramble-slide back to earth, down into the valley where mists persist, but everyone will at last have come awake.

This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

“Pity poor Bradford”

Desormais 2


Bolling Hall has squatted on its plot since the fourteenth century, hunched against the wind and rain of the West Riding – a North Country architectural essay in dark yellow sandstone looking warily down a steep hillside onto Bradford’s vale. Old though the building is, the estate’s foundations go deeper than Domesday, when Conqueror companion-in-arms Ilbert de Lacy abstracted it from a Saxon called Sindi, his reward for sanguinary services rendered during the Norman invasion and the subsequent Harrying of the North.

De Lacy’s motte-and-bailey has been overbuilt, and his line is long extinguished, but other owners likewise felt the need to guard against restive locals, rival families, religious opponents, apolitical marauders, wolves, the Great Boar of Cliffe, or whatever other elementals might watch and wait from tangled woods, stony slopes and bog-cotton dancing moors. The family crests of manor-holders, scratched in black-and-white onto a window lighting the stairs to the Ghost Room, constitute a subfusc sort of heraldry, one informed by everyday sights as much as classical or chivalric conceits. There are martlets for the Bollings and Tempests, oak trees for the Thorntons, owls on a bar sinister for the Saviles, cudgel and shield-bearing wodewoses for the Woods, hunting horns and chevrons for Bradford. They feel like the arms and achievements of provincials attuned to rurality, and modest in their pretensions – although Robert Bolling overreached himself during the Wars of the Roses and was temporarily deprived of the estate. (A later Bolling, Edith, married Woodrow Wilson.)

The oldest part of the present building has been identified as a pele tower, although these are more usually associated with points yet further north, in the “Debatable Lands” between Scotland and England. Yet pele towers are likely enough in this valley long accessible only from the north, where the laws of London or even York held only spasmodic sway. Even with later fenestration which streams greyness into the Great Hall, and Adam-style remodelling, Bolling keeps a fortress feel, a sense augmented by dark Jacobean panelling cut deeply with geometric patterns, strapwork, acanthus leaves, flowers, birds and lions’ heads, interspersed with rubicund oils of English faces, and even a death mask of Cromwell. The Hall possesses what the poet-topographer Peter Davidson calls “northern rooms, rooms that expect nothing of the weather”. It could be a Hollywood haunted house, and indeed there is a legend attached to the Duke of Newcastle who slept here in December 1642 on the night before his planned attack on the almost defenceless Parliamentarian town. Bellicose before retiring, he came down palely the morning after, claiming he had been visited by the apparition of a weeping woman begging him to “Pity poor Bradford”. Whether genuinely believing he had seen a spectre, or just hung over, the Duke’s martial descent of that day was marked by relative restraint, with just ten deaths recorded.

The defences of Bolling never needed to be tested but enemies of an odd kind came upon it anyway, creeping up its hill in increments of meaner dwellings, so that now two aspects of the Hall look onto semis and a car park, and there is a noise of traffic where once there would have been bleating or birds. But this civic slight is in its way appropriate, in this region where melancholy falls as readily as rain.

Sometimes it seems almost a requirement to portray the North of England as  a single vast and tragic landscape. The imaginative equation of North with dearth goes back as far as Roman legionaries tramping gloomily up the Great North Road to garrison the edge of the empire at Hadrian’s Wall (although Septimus Severus died at York, and Constantine took the purple there). It gathered pace as the locus of English power slowly migrated south, as monarchs roamed their realm less frequently, ecclesiastical power centred on Canterbury, and parliaments fixed at Westminster. The great families of the North found themselves becoming provincials – and slightly untrustworthy ones. From the London point of view, they had too often been kingmakers or breakers, too often Catholic, too rich, too swaggeringly insolent, and their centres of learning at York and Durham were cultural as well as temporal rivals.

The Tudors unroofed the great Cistercian abbeys of Jervaulx, Rievaulx, Fountains and Byland, gelded the Prince-Bishops, started to centralise the legal system, and house-train the Percys, Howards and Cliffords. The North was just too close to Scotland to feel fully safe, and even after the crowns were united in 1603 longstanding fault-lines remained. Well into the eighteenth century, the North was seen as marginal, outside the English mainstream, a redoubt of recusancy potentially sympathetic to Stuarts, its untrammelled nature offending against both the logic of the Age of Reason and the aesthetics of the Age of Taste. Even when the beauties of Lakeland began to be discovered by poets, aquatinters and garden designers, they were slightly shivered at, seen as unreal, unpeopled, dubbed “Horrid” or at best “Picturesque” – places to be looked at rather than lived in.

The Industrial Revolution eventually made the North central to the English economy, making vast amounts of new money whilst undermining the aristocratic order – in a few cases literally, with landowners delving for coal almost under inherited houses. When the borough of Bradford came into being in 1847, it contained no fewer than 46 coal mines. Encouraged by the Calvinistic municipal motto Labor Omnia Vincit, furnaces blasted day and night, chimneys choked, hammers clanged and cogs clicked, mills clattered and drifted lung-filling fibres – and 30% of all children died before attaining their teens.

The ugliness associated with industrialisation actually reinforced Southern notions of the North as a place apart. Seen from the safe South, Northern towns were increasingly seen as the haunts of grim-visaged Gradgrinds, building themselves vulgar villas while turning sturdy peasants into sickly slum-dwellers. Beyond the ragged edges of the ever-expanding towns, the savage scenery of moors seemed perfect habitations for Heathcliffs, ideal locales for a hundred Dotheboys Halls. The Devonshire-born Nicholas Nickleby’s reaction upon first seeing Wackford Squeers’ appalling academy is one of a Southerner feeling suddenly very far from home  –

As he looked up at the dreary house and dark windows, and upon the wild country round, covered with snow, he felt a depression of heart and spirit which he had never experienced before.

The names alone of places and people sound stark – Blubberhouses, Mytholmroyd, Uriah Woodhead, Savage Crangle, Hardcastle Crags, the ominous Nab Wood Cemetery and Crematorium, and countless others. Wanderers are furthermore constantly being arrested by disquieting associations, such as the plaque in smart Skipton that indicates the Bull-baiting Stone, or an antlered bronze demon looking saturninely out of a sunny New Age shop window in the same town, faintly disturbing among the trash of tarot. Such things can be seen in the South too, but they seem to have an extra level of significance when backdropped by low-lit moors and sharpened by frost.

Nouveau-riche mill-owners, mine-managers and middlemen aped aristocratic manners and manors, attended ostentatiously at chapel or Low Anglican services, endowed and administered charities, but were always seen as bumptious, unlikeable and unscrupulous. However irreproachable many may have been, even when they were like Titus Salt, they were easy targets for either snobbish satire or socialistic critiques such as the Bradfordian playwright J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, in which a mysterious detective turns up late at night to quiz the inhabitants of a huge new house about the suicide of a local girl, exposing the callousness of the family and their recently-risen class.

Even now, with the old industries at last starting to be replaced, to the Southern English mind, the simple words “The North” as glimpsed so frequently in Transport Medium typeface on roadsigns connote both stonewalled fields and urban decay, poverty, grimness and lostness – to which can now be added vague but not unfounded notions of dangerously alienated Muslims. Anyone who ventures north of the significantly named “Home Counties” soon realises that this stereotypical view effectively means West and South Yorkshire, and Lancashire and Tyneside conurbations. The vaster Yorkshire, comprising the lonely landscapes of the North Riding, and the semi-submarine East Riding with its drowned towns and dreams of the Hanse, not to mention history-clogged York itself, does not really enter into this equation. Nor do the Lakes, Durham Cathedral, the walls and rows of Chester, Carlisle, Liverpool, Newcastle, or Northumberland – all of them of course in the North, but not intrinsic to that particular understanding.

The Industrial Revolution itself has become the object of nostalgia as its rawness mellows into Grimshaw and Lowry tones, and the uncompromising communities that coalesced around milling, mining or steel are seen through a prism of foxing monochrome stills from the 1930s through to the 1980s. Guardian journalists still (and with justification) bewail the economic hollowing-out caused by Thatcherism, the once-powerful industries sacrificed to City speculators, steel, mining and milling workers fly-tipped into an abyss of welfare dependency and social squalor. Leftists take a special interest in the town because of its exploitative past, its innovations in education and medicine, and its role in the foundation of the Labour Party in 1893. (The present government is trying to make political inroads hereabouts by talking of “Northern powerhouses”, with devolved powers and better railways – suitably Victorian solutions for a town of phlegmatic traders.)

Leftists who emote about the North rarely have practical ideas as to how global economic trends can be reversed, and also tend to be uninterested in the Immigration Revolution that accompanied de-industrialisation and exacerbated the area’s social splintering. To them, it seems of little consequence that a quarter of Bradford’s 523,000 residents are Muslims, many cleaving to ultra-orthodox interpretations. Perhaps somewhere now in the city there are a few more idealists like Tanveer Ahmed, who in March went all the way to Glasgow to murder an Ahmadiyya shopkeeper who had “disrespected Islam” by wishing Happy Easter to Christian customers. Immigrants have long been attracted here by the wool-trade, which once made Bradford “wool capital of the world”, but had gone into irreversible decline by the time the first Asians arrived. The new immigration was therefore badly-timed as well as different qualitatively from the European incursions of the mid-19th century onwards (whose most unlikely product must be that composer of lush tone-poems Frederick Delius, who lived in the district still called Little Germany).

To a certain Panglossian kind of commentator, the race riots of 1985 and 2001, and the public burnings of Satanic Verses in between, were passing epiphenomena, regrettable but understandable products of low education, unemployment, Tory cuts, and social segregation caused chiefly by white racism. They would rather focus on such heartening factoids as that Bradford was declared “Curry Capital of Britain” in 2013 – that nearby Hebden Bridge is louche home to an unusually high number of lesbians – that Heathcliff was a victim of anti-Roma prejudice, and his creator of gender inequality – that the town had critical ethnic mass to host the 2007 International Indian Film Festival awards.

They would also be largely indifferent to the epic echoes of the pre-modern county, its still visible castles, churches, halls and houses, its mental habits and myths. If they were to visit Bolling, they would be most interested in the working conditions of turnspits. At Skipton Castle, they might glance up at the grand gatehouse, with its forward-looking family motto Desormais (“Henceforth”), but they would not find it strangely sad that Lady Anne Clifford, who placed the hopeful word there circa 1649, would be the last representative of a dynasty that had once commanded allegiance

From Penigent to Pendle Hill,

From Lenton to Long Preston

And all that Craven coasts did tell

They with the lusty Clifford came

Well brown’d with sounding bows upbend

On Clifford’s banner did attend.

What could neo-Puritans comprehend of the experiences or motivations of an Anne, who held the Castle three years for the King, or even bloodier-minded ancestors like Robert Clifford who entertained Edward I, and who chose to live in this dangerous zone so that he would never miss an opportunity of fighting the Scots? Another was  John Clifford, who had already earned the nickname “Black-faced Butcher” by the time he fell at Towton aged just 26. Even the most peaceable of the tribe, Henry (called by Wordsworth the “Shepherd Lord” because of his long exile in the hills) led the Craven contingent to victory at Flodden. No doubt all these would be adduced as arguments for historical inevitability, products of the irrational military-aristocratical complex, yet more reasons that order had to end. As for the Saxon high crosses in the church at Ilkley, with their writhing beasts and worn Jesus, they would be seen as stelae marking the resting-places of ancient delusions – a disdainful sort of analysis for some reason never extended to the ideas expressed in the West Riding’s mosques.

And what would urban chatterati make of Yorkshire’s underlying nature, its hard-edged pastoralism, its sudden stabs of beauty, more evident again now that mines have been backfilled, mills become apartments, and waterways transport fewer toxins? What would they think of if they were to walk under the sky-supporting arches of old abbeys drowsing along peaty rivers, knee-deep in summer flowers, their hedges silver-spangled with cobwebs on frosty mornings? Probably just that this was the inevitable end of an unsustainable system. They might smile at Geoffrey Hill’s playful poem, “Damon’s Lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire, 1654”, which subverts urban and proletarian associations by projecting Arcadian and Renaissance imagery onto a winter’s day during the endless-feeling English interregnum –

November rips gold foil from the oak ridges.

Dour folk huddle in High Hoyland, Penistone.

The tributaries of the Sheaf and Don

bulge their dull spate, cramming the poor bridges.

The North Sea batters our shepherds’ cottages

from sixty miles. No sooner has the sun

swung clear above earth’s rim than it is gone.

We live like gleaners of its vestiges

knowing we flourish, though each year a child

with the set face of a tomb-weeper is put down

for ever and ever. Why does the air grow cold

in the region of mirrors?

But the best known poet celebrant of Yorkshire is Ted Hughes, whose most relevant collection for these purposes is his 1979 Remains of Elmet, honouring the little kingdom that rose and as unostentatiously expired in what is now West Yorkshire some time between the fifth and seventh centuries. The collection is as elegiac as the title suggests, and in some respects is itself rather dated. But “The Trance of Light” both looks back on a semi-mythical shire where small kings and Great Boars really did co-exist, and forward to a day when the last looms and Low Churchers go down to join the ancient Britons, the pinched life ends, and Hughes’ beloved hawks can once more clutch creation in their claws –

The upturned face of this land

The mad singing in the hills

The prophetic mouth of the rain

That fell asleep

Under migraine of headscarves and clatter

Of clog irons and looms

And gutter-water and clog-irons

And clog-irons and biblical texts

Stretches awake, out of Revelations

And returns to itself.

So superb to think it might, and that something substantive remains among all these layered remains.

This article first appeared in Chronicles in June 2016, and is reproduced with permission

Rise of the Dominatrix – review of Margaret Thatcher: Not for Turning by Charles Moore


Rise of the Dominatrix

Margaret Thatcher: Not for Turning

Charles Moore, London: Allen Lane, 2013, 859pp

When Margaret Thatcher died last April, the obsequies were at times almost drowned by vitriolic voices celebrating her demise. There were howls of joy from old enemies, street parties, and a puerile campaign to make the Wizard of Oz song, “Ding, Dong, The Witch is Dead!” the top-selling pop single (it failed, narrowly). The extravagant hatred evinced by some shocked some, but it was in a way an entirely suitable send-off for a woman who always loathed ‘consensus’. She may be the last Conservative whose demise will evoke more than a yawn.

This is former Spectator and Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore’s first book, but it is an assured production, steeped in its subject, judicious in its handling of history, coloured by his journalistic instinct for revealing and amusing anecdotes. In this first of two volumes, he follows his heroine from birth up to what “may well have been the happiest moment in her life” – the October 1982 victory celebrations after the recapture of the Falklands. His heroine she may have been – and this is why she approached him to be her biographer, on the understanding that publication would be posthumous, and interviewees knew she would never read what they had said – but he maintains critical distance. There are 54 pages of footnotes referring to innumerable interviews, and a seven page bibliography, assembled over 16 years of what must have been at times an all-engrossing project, whilst incidentally editing Britain’s best-selling broadsheet newspaper. We will need to wait until the companion volume, Herself Alone, to get Moore’s assessment of her legacy, but for now, Not for Turning equips us admirably to understand what she was like as person and politician, why she was the way she was, and suggest why she would succeed in many ways, yet fall short in others.

Moore’s researches were at times made more arduous by his subject, a naturally private person who was always, as he reflected in the Daily Telegraph after she died, “keen to efface the personal”. Her memoirs gloss over emotions or incidents about which we would like to know very much more, or lend “Thatcherism” greater coherence in retrospect than it possessed. But luckily she was intrinsically honest, and Moore early learned to read subtle signs –

All politicians often have to say things that conceal or avoid important facts. She certainly did this quite often; but she did it with a visible discomfort which often undermined her own subterfuge.

This complex personage pushed into the world in 1925, and lived above a commercial premises in Grantham, Lincolnshire, a town even now a byword for provincialism (despite having been Isaac Newton’s hometown). It was one of two grocery shops run by her father Alfred Roberts, who when he wasn’t selling sausages to Midlandian burghers was Mayor and a Methodist lay preacher. “If you get it from Roberts’s – you get the BEST!” was the shops’ slogan, and her parents’ rectitude, work ethic, and attention to detail would stay with their daughter.

School was preparation for a life of application. A contemporary remembered – “She always stood out because teenage girls don’t know where they’re going. She did.” She unsurprisingly excelled in declaiming from sturdily middle-brow poets – Tennyson, Longfellow, Kipling, Whitman. Serious, too, was her sojourn in Somerville, regarded as the cleverest of the female colleges in Oxford, where she read Chemistry and thrived even under a Leftist principal.

The young Margaret Roberts, notwithstanding the pervasive progressive miasma, was already obstinately Conservative, although she had not yet refined her particular brand. She joined the Oxford Union Conservative Association (OUCA) and became its president, and co-author of a pamphlet destined to be combed over by obsessives in later years. At that time, the Conservative Party was a mass movement, and a means of social mingling, and many joined for social as much as political reasons, or simply to find a spouse of the right Right type. Moore suggests that she likewise saw OUCA as an “opening of the door”. She took elocution lessons, and met as many influential people as possible, always inveigling herself somehow onto the top table at dinners. Yet her letters to her parents and older sister Muriel are often apolitical, rarely even mentioning the War, unexpectedly spotted with spelling mistakes, full of family, clothes and rare romantic interests, the latter discussed in briskly British terms. When she first met Denis, her husband-to-be, she told Muriel that he was “a perfect gentleman. Not a very attractive creature”. (He remembered her almost equally coolly – “a nice-looking young woman, a bit overweight”.)

After graduation, she worked in industry, and in 1950 stood for Parliament for the first time, in the solid Labour seat of Dartford in Kent. She conducted a dynamic campaign, characterized by her contribution to a debate hosted by the United Nations Association, which featured her Labour opponent Norman Dodds and other speakers even further Left:

I gave them ten minutes of what I thought about their views! As a result Dodds wouldn’t speak to me afterwards and Lord and Lady S. [Strabolgi – an old Scottish title Italianized in the 16th century] went off without speaking as well.

She made an impressive 6,000 dent in the Labour majority. It is characteristic that at the count she told her activists that the next campaign would start the following morning.

She married Denis in 1951, the start of a quietly contented partnership that lasted until he died in 2003. As well as his earning capacity and a business brain useful whenever his wife needed to comprehend company documents, he brought to their alliance some social status, a large fund of commonsense, and a willingness (even now rare for men) to take a back seat. Performing household tasks – she cooked when she could, and enjoyed tidying (an everyday application of what Edward Norman called her “pre-existing sense of neatness and order in society”) – assuaged the faint guilt she clearly felt at being something of a Bluestocking.

Needing to earn more money, she trained for and practised at the Bar, and the experience added to her near-mystical respect for law of all kinds. She later systematized this passion for precedents –

As a Methodist in Grantham, I learnt the laws of God. When I read chemistry at Oxford, I learnt the laws of science, which derive from the laws of God, and when I studied for the Bar, I learnt the laws of man.

Between work and family, she politicked tirelessly, resenting even holidays as wasted time. (There is a telling photo of her in this book, on holiday in the Hebrides in 1978, walking in business clothes along a beach, staring at her watch.)

In 1958, she applied for selection in the north London constituency of Finchley, where the electorate was approximately one-fifth Jewish. This suited her, perhaps predisposed to philo-Semitism by her Nonconformist upbringing, certainly always admiring of law-abiding, hard-working people, and she impressed from the start. At one selection committee meeting, one astute member whispered to another, “We’re looking at a future Prime Minister of England”. Later, she would be strongly influenced by Jewish thinkers like Milton Friedman, Keith Joseph and Alfred Sherman (the latter a fan of this journal), and was a strong (if not uncritical) supporter of Israel. Macmillan once joked that her Cabinet contained “more Old Estonians than Old Etonians”. Yet she also came under fire from constituents for upholding Oswald Mosley’s legal right to hold a rally in Trafalgar Square. She was of course selected, then elected in the 1959 election, and in 1961 got a junior ministerial post as Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. Her anxiety to prove herself and achieve something was immediately evident, with her Minister grunting to the Department’s top civil servant “She’s trouble. What can we do to keep her busy?”

As the Kingdom lost its Empire it also lost its way, and her Party drifted directionlessly. Quite apart from the threats to order and freedom posed by different kinds of socialism, ranging from Soviet-funded Marxism to saccharine egalitarianism, the economy was dominated by sclerotic state-owned concerns, with attempts at reform usually stymied by ultra-Left trade unionists. There was a decline syndrome of spiralling spending, ballooning inflation, inbuilt inefficiency, and industrial (in)action. The Conservatives seemed powerless to act, or even to think, although monetarism was gaining ground among cleverer Conservatives. Thatcher was frustrated by the Party’s unwillingness to engage in what she could see was an ideological rather than a mere electoral battle. Emblematic of Conservative complacency was the reaction of the free-market Economic Dining Club, whose members were reluctant to let her join, fearing she would dampen their masculine conviviality, and compel them to engage in discussions before dinner.

On other matters, she was more old school – in favour of corporal and capital punishment, against pornography, drugs and easier divorce. But she was never a reflexive moralizer, voting to legalize both homosexuality and abortion (the latter because she had met a despairing disabled child). Whatever her private views on any subject, she was then (and would always be) “trapped in moderation”, to borrow the title of one of Moore’s chapters – compelled to work within a framework where the odds were always against her.

Natural allies lacked stomach – for example, businesses refused to help in the fight against the closed shop, because they wished to avoid unpleasantness, and the alternative would be too complicated. Again, in the 1960s and 1970s, even many Tories wanted comprehensive education, and although she managed to save 94 grammar schools while Education Secretary (1970-1974), she was compelled to allow 3,286 comprehensives. She hated the egalitarian educational orthodoxy, although sometimes she would have to defend it publicly. Moore cites one interview in which she claimed that primary schools were “much better…much more progressive”, while she was saying privately to aides that all those schools offered was “rag dolls and rolling on the floor”.

She had learned how to combine being a conviction politician with being a pragmatic politician – and to ensure that when she had been bounced into a course of action she should make her unhappiness known to the Right-of-centre grassroots. She was sincere, but she was also a superlative Party manager. Yet she really tried. “You came out of a meeting with her”, one Education official remembered, “feeling that you’d had three very hard sets of tennis”. But he remembered her fondly; she was unfailingly kind and generous to staff.

Good luck came to her aid when Ted Heath refused to take her leadership challenge seriously, and in 1975 she took his place as Conservative leader, the first woman to lead any major Western political party. She revelled in the attention, and did not mind being hated – “The day that I am not causing controversy, I shall not be doing very much”. She was the last Conservative leader willing to endorse inequality – “Equity is a very much better principle than equality”. She attracted contumely even from her own advisers for supporting Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. Zbigniew Brzezinski was astounded to learn that she was “inclined to favour the white position”; in one speech she even said “The whites will fight, and the whites will be right.” In the end, on Rhodesia as on so many other matters, she bowed to inevitability – but arguing fiercely as she retreated. (Moore notes laconically, “What happened much later in Zimbabwe…was to confirm Mrs. Thatcher’s pessimism”.) She attended what despairing F.C.O. officials called “disturbingly right-wing” meetings in America, building bonds that would be of material benefit during the Falklands War (although Moore is at pains not to hyperbolize the ‘special relationship’). In a famous 1978 interview, she infuriated the Party establishment by speaking on immigration, a subject on which she had said little before, saying that many Britons feared “they might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”. But she hoovered up votes that would otherwise have gone to the National Front, then on the cusp of breakthrough, and delivered huge swathes of the white working class into the Conservative camp. (She would never do anything substantive about immigration, although the numbers approved for citizenship dipped during the Eighties, from circa 72,000 a year to around 54,000.)

The incompetence of opponents also helped propel her over the Downing Street threshold in 1979, “undoubtedly”, Moore writes, “ the most truly conservative person…ever to reach No. 10 in the era of universal suffrage.” She was also almost certainly the last PM who would pay no attention to popular culture, or even the media – and who was so innocent that she once gave TV cameras the two-fingered V for victory sign the wrong way round.

Although she faced great resistance from within her own party – the so-called ‘Wets’ who regarded her as vulgar – their intellectual incoherence gave her a great advantage. At times, however, she missed opportunities, perhaps partly out of relict deference to these grandees, certainly because she often acted intuitively rather than strategically. Her intellectual influencers rarely combined political intelligence with their incandescence, so she had to rely on less ‘sound’ careerists who watered down her wishes – not that she was ever the anarcho-capitalist many wailed she was. Little happened on the economic front until she and Geoffrey Howe pushed through the 1981 Budget, largely against her Cabinet and ‘expert’ opinion, but as this book ends the economic battles that would define her mostly lie ahead.

She was also under fire, almost literally, in Ulster. She patrolled in uniform, Boudicca-like, with the troops in South Armagh’s “Bandit Country”, and would send handwritten letters to the families of killed soldiers – her Unionism all the more impassioned because she had lost one of her closest friends and allies, Airey Neave, to an INLA bomb. She found herself having to deal with rampant terrorism, hunger strikers, the oleaginous Charles Haughey, international opinion, and her own diplomats – and one can see how just a few years later she would sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement against her own instincts.

Moore provides other portents of future failures – such as her relative lack of interest in the EU, and her reaction to the Brixton riots of 1981, a typical Thatcher combination of strong rhetoric, followed by appointing a leftwing judge to conduct the enquiry. Not just trapped in moderation, she was also becoming trapped in political correctness. She was also making enemies of many senior Tories through sheer brusquerie. The scene is being set for eight years of effort and isolation, leading to treachery, talismanic exile, finally sad dotage when she would appear only infrequently, a tiny ex-titan towered over by men who affected not to notice that her famous features had fallen on one side, and her lipstick was askew.

But for now, we close the book and the curtains on Act I with her finest hour – those seventy-four days between April and June 1982 when the Falklands were in global play, and the PM was thrown upon her inner resources and not found wanting – guided to victory by her personal compass, and her willingness to trust to the courage and skill of the armed forces. At the memorial service at St. Paul’s that October, she stood funereal and indomitable beneath Wren’s great dome, determined that the military, not she, should take the credit – while the Whispering Gallery within the Cathedral and outside was alive with patriotic approbation, the Iron Lady as evocation of Elizabeth I, personification of a patria both beautiful and doomed.

This review first appeared in Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission